Participate don’t dominate: An interview with curator and activist Ben Vickers
The art world often seems to vacillate between money-fuelled complacency and a politics that is merely for show. London-based curator and activist Ben Vickers stands outside this dichotomy as an inspiring advocate of a future-oriented progressive politics driven by networked forms of social organisation – a vision based less on idealism than on the search for practical responses to a pervasive crisis. Vickers is currently in south Italy testing the capacity for turning ideas into action at the prototype of unMonastery, a collaborative community project that takes inspiration from the history of monasticism. Spike’s Alexander Scrimgeour met Vickers in London, where, among much else, their conversation took in the differences between networks and institutions, the evolution of social change, the dangers of breaking things, a subjective micro-history of London’s post-Internet art scene, and a proposal for art to re-model itself on Nordic live-action role-play.
ALEXANDER SCRIMGEOUR: So I thought a good way to start could be with what you said at the “Post-Net Aesthetics” panel discussion at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London last October. There was one thing in particular I thought was fascinating, which was about networks versus institutions. You were talking about the immediacy and decentralised nature of emergent networks as opposed to the accumulated history and power of the institution, and more broadly about things that networks can’t do and institutions can, and vice versa.
BEN VICKERS: Right, yes. I think one of the primary problems holding back what people call the network society or even grassroots organizing is that networks of this nature are incapable of maintaining tacit knowledge and organizational knowledge, which is something that institutions have historically been very good at doing. If there were a true free-market dynamic then organizational structures that are far more agile would be rapidly overtaking institutions in various ways, but because the institutions still maintain control over the property and have strong relationships with existing power structures, I don’t see it changing anytime soon.
SCRIMGEOUR: So there is a power struggle between the institution and the network?
VICKERS: Yes. What I always reference, via [hacker and writer] Eleanor Saitta, is a RAND Corporation report that’s called Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks. It makes this really clear, concise, almost too-rational explanation for societal evolution through various organisational designs. The text explicitly sets out who will benefit in the moment of a shift within the way that we organize society. That’s to say: community groups, non-governmental organisations, all kinds of disparate groups that are capable of autonomously organising outside existing structures.
SCRIMGEOUR: That sounds like it’s already happening in some ways.
VICKERS: Yes, to a degree. I trust things that are messy in the present moment, and I think that is definitely where you can begin to identify the spirit of the network. I might be wrong, but from my experience of various forms of organising the things that have always felt good and been most effective are those things that were super messy and would gain clarity in certain moments. Like at the LOTE [Living on the Edge] conference organized by EdgeRyders late last year, where you have a group of forty people sat in a circle and no one is facilitating and no one is speaking over someone else and everyone is giving one another time to speak. Moments like that don’t happen in institutions, you just can’t come close to that sense of belonging with strangers. Even in a games company like Valve, which has a totally horizontal structure, where people have wheelie desks that they can just wheel over to the project that they want to work on: even in that environment, you are not going to get close to a totally self-organised thing where people don’t have to turn up. So if there is a quality of the network, then I think it is in moments like that, like during Occupy, when a lot of people thought to themselves: Why has this never been a part of my life previously?
SCRIMGEOUR: But isn’t what happened during Occupy, for example, that people found it very frustrating to work in that setting?
VICKERS: Oh, it is brutally frustrating, but I have always been a total optimist and so I am able to cope with that stuff. I don’t know if it is because I grew up in virtual worlds and forums and spent effectively four years of my life in my bedroom, and my close friends were those I met in an online game. I don’t know if that’s what has given me the optimism, clarity, and comfort in operating in these spaces where something can get super messy; that’s also the point when people are potentially putting it all on the table.
SCRIMGEOUR: But what do you think that it needs after this stage?
VICKERS: The business plan, and the appropriate project-management suite (laughs).
SCRIMGEOUR: That’s the start-up dream, isn’t it? And the big argument about Occupy was whether some sort of institutional becoming needed to happen to it; people were saying we need to have stronger structures to enable actual things to happen, to move it beyond that initial sense of release.
VICKERS: I don’t agree with that. It is like what Julian Assange said at his talk at CCC [Chaos Computer Club], when he said something like, “Occupy requires scaffolding, Anonymous requires scaffolding, and the system admins of the world, if they are capable of identifying themselves as a class, are capable of providing that scaffolding. “ I don’t believe that. One of the things I don’t know the answer to is how long something has to exist for. I used not to understand why anybody would produce anything to last more than a week. Recently, I’ve become increasingly unsure about that. I guess that at this moment we have to ask ourselves, fundamentally, what we need to keep around for the next 200 years and what we are happy to see go, and this is where – particularly in an art world context – it is quite funny, because you hear people denigrate institutions and want to see them burnt down to the ground, almost like a contemporary incarnation of the Futurist manifesto, and it’s just like, Is that the target? Is that what we want to burn to the ground? I don’t think the network structures necessarily have to start building utopian kinds of communes, but I think they need to take a very close look at things that can be re-appropriated and things that could be built to facilitate something like Occupy in a way that is not like being homeless in the financial district of a capital city. And I think that structurally there is an opportunity at this juncture, which may not be available in five years’ time, to make compromises and come to a point of agreement within existing institutions in a way that means nobody has to fight it out. If you look at global conditions, the pressure that is going to fall on the governments and governing bodies of the world is going to be so extreme, and when food prices are rocketing – and we are already starting to see the real repercussions of climate chaos – the rational thought of “Can’t we come to some agreement?” goes out of the window. With these things in mind I try to focus my energy on the foundations that you could build in this moment. A lot of people will in the coming years need to have a very difficult sit-down, face-to-face conversation about what these relationships are going to look like going forwards.
SCRIMGEOUR: Partly you’re envisaging something between the network and the institution, then? And I wonder if there’s anything that we can learn from recent art practice – if you look back, for example, to the beginnings of net.art in the 90s and the question of the institutionalisation of that kind of work. Do you think that whole thing at some point took some kind of a wrong turning?
VICKERS: I don’t think that net.art took a wrong turning. I think the fact that net.art doesn’t really exist within the canon of art history, and museums do not own any of the major pieces, is a demonstration of that net.art period actually doing it right. Those artists kept to what they believed in – which was not about the power or revolutionary potential of the Internet but about its formal qualities and infrastructural implications. If you look at Jodi, UBERMORGEN, Olia Lialina, none of them ever really believed in the utopianism of the Internet. If you speak to Liz [lizvlx] and Hans [Bernhard] from UBERMORGEN, there is an intense antagonism between the way that they see it – and saw it, when they were totally embedded in it – and the way the Macbook Pro post-Internet subculture initially looked upon it … as well as how it looks upon it now, when that group of artists rely on references to immateriality and accelerationist ideals as core components of their practice and aesthetic toolbox. It is all quite different from the early illuminations of net.art.
SCRIMGEOUR: How would you talk about what happened in the post-Internet or post-post-Internet scene, those people who were in some ways super committed to there having been a digital revolution?
VICKERS: It is very difficult for me to talk about that; it is tied up in all kinds of conflicts, because what did we actually gain collectively from the enormous amount of energy that went into creating that scene?
SCRIMGEOUR: In a way I would say what we got out of it is a continuation of what was already happening in art, which sometimes looked like an expansion.
VICKERS: I wouldn’t entirely disagree, but there was an opportunity. The big card that post-Internet had to play was making the gallery space just another node in a network, right? And it did that for two or three years and then it stopped, and decided to make the gallery the primary site again. Which meant any power created by that situation, that drove towards and validated a greater degree of equality between a website, a status update on Twitter, a project space in Chicago, and the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park was given up. It was just given up, and you are seeing it given up again in the moment in which everybody stopped talking about post-Internet. In 2011, at 319 Scholes in New York, I did a questionnaire with Artie Vierkant, Brad Troemel, and others from that community, and nobody wanted to use the term, as if it was shameful. And then last year there was that panel discussion at the ICA, where I was explicitly asked by Rhizome to talk about post-Internet, and then it all flared up because Karen [Archey] introduced it with this quote from [Frieze co-director] Matthew Slotover, saying that he thought post-Internet art was “a very interesting direction”; and then suddenly I was getting invites from institutions in Rotterdam saying, “Oh, we want to hold a round-table discussion on post-Internet”. I think what is happening here, as often happens, is that people are riding the opportunity, and some people will say that it is the same with my appointment at the Serpentine, but I would say that I don’t begrudge anybody that kind of thing because actually this generation is in a tricky position in terms of what they were promised from their master’s degree from the RCA, or any other degree for that matter. But post-Internet had a really big card to play, and it didn’t go there, it didn’t push it.
SCRIMGEOUR: Was this not partly out of frustration at how difficult it was, or simply because it couldn’t: that the basis for doing it a different way somehow didn’t seem solid enough?
VICKERS: You always have these questions being asked like, Why did Occupy fail? Why did post-Internet fail? Why did the student movement fail? But I don’t actually really define these emergent network forms as failures. I see things like post-Internet, Occupy, the squatting movement, and all these different moments as iterative processes. This is part of the impulse for the unMonastery project: By identifying that ok, so you can’t expect the middle classes to do anything if they don’t feel as though their position economically and in society is secure, how do you begin to create that security – a safety net – in a way that doesn’t compromise the values that you are striving towards? And that is how we reached the idea that the scale in which we should consider operating is not that of a utopian project; it is that of a fire extinguisher. If you can create a safe space in which individuals can hold on to those kinds of values and that way of articulating themselves and still work towards reshaping the world, whilst also putting out the fire, then super great …
SCRIMGEOUR: But partly because some people choose the path of compromise rather than revolution?
VICKERS: I don’t believe in revolution, though that’s not to say I believe in progressive change. I believe in extreme moments of conflict that have different outcomes. There is a big difference between the networks that I work with most frequently, and identify with in terms of the change they want to see, and the self-proclaimed revolutionaries like Julian Assange, even if our networks overlap. Assange’s goal is to break everything, expecting it to fix itself, and that is wrong. I have had a few hard lessons in “don’t break things unless you know how to put them back together”. Obviously not on the same scale, but catalysing any kind of social shift comes with a set of responsibilities. If we look at two contemporary examples in London, both of which embrace the deterioration of constructed reality through their practice, you have [artist collective] Lucky PDF and [artist] Ed Fornieles. Both of these identities probably in a big way are responsible for destroying trust and friendship within the London contemporary art scene, and there’s no way that I can extricate myself from having contributed to that process. With LuckyPDF, at the beginning it was about having parties and celebrating each other’s work and really decentralising stuff. When they did the Frieze project [Live from Frieze Art Fair this is LuckyPDFTV, 2011] a lot of people got a really hard lesson in what it means to be appropriated by a stronger power, and what power looks like within your peer group: that was really a first moment, there were really brutal arguments, and ethically it was totally fucked and it bred massive distrust. Lucky PDF went from a group that could have parties with thousands of people and everybody was friends – the people going to the parties, funding the artwork, making the artwork, and viewing the artwork were all the same people – to just being a meaningless brand, which lost all credibility among its peer group. And Ed’s project is not exactly the same, but all that character-based stuff [e.g.Characterdate, 2012] bred such extreme distrust among a social group that something broke there, too. So: as much as it is fun to practise in the sandbox of the art world, you get very real lessons in breaking things and in how difficult it is to build something that is sustainable.
SCRIMGEOUR: But still you’re part of the art world … I’d like to hear more about how you ended up there, and what you think its role is beyond its function as a kind of testing ground.
VICKERS: It’s not so much a question of ending up but more of remaining. I did after all study sculpture, but most people aren’t really aware of this, since I’ve made a regular habit of removing my history from the Internet. This work was never an isolated practice, though; in parallel I was working on an early data-mining initiative at Sky – as in News International, BSkyB – and squatting mansions in Mayfair. But I think it’s a good question to ask, since a lot of the things I’m working on presently barely even overlap with the art world and I think sometimes I come across as somebody who kind of hates art. Which is so far from the truth: privately I still maintain a very opaque practice, and I have an absolute love for things that can produce meaning and a language that is not describable between people. I believe in art that does that, that’s why I continue to actively participate in the art world, but then there is all of this other stuff – that there exists a form of resistance in the present moment that makes this a safe place to be.
SCRIMGEOUR: But could art answer the capacity for change that you are interested in pushing?
VICKERS: When I am being more extreme, I define the aspirations of artistic discourse for myself as an art with no spectating, literally something that cannot be held together as a thing if not everybody experiencing the work is present within the same time and context. The documentation will be meaningless without that coming together. The ability to sit in a room and start from what in some ways is point zero when looking at new objects with up to ten people and just saying, “Go”, and having that conversation, and how that conversation evolves over time, how that group of people creates meaning around an object that may draw in different reference points – it is really quite unique; you don’t experience that in many other disciplines in the same free-form way. And that quality of experience, that improvisation of thought: it’s brilliant. But even with an object-based show, the only point for me is when it can be said that the object in and of itself is not valuable. That is why I am particularly drawn to things like live-action role-playing, especially the Nordic LARP scene and Jeepform* stuff. When that scene comes together, they create something at the highest level of human-to-human experience that I wish art could maintain.
SCRIMGEOUR: So your ideal art would be collaborative, network-based?
VICKERS: Like I said, it’s in my most extreme moments, because it is fascistic to say that all art has to be collaborative and participative and there are no spectators.
SCRIMGEOUR: But the model would be coproduction?
VICKERS: An intuitive guttural understanding of that, yes … my preference would be to have that as a lens by which you understand that to be art’s primary experience, because at the moment the lens through which most people look at art is the idea of production and then outcome, rather than collaboration and experience.
SCRIMGEOUR: That is a beautiful dream; a network-based way of making a flat hierarchy between production and consumption, and …
VICKERS: … and commentary, as you’d also end up with things like fan fiction, where people extend the history of Beuys. I don’t want art history to feel like a graveyard when you walk through it, I want it to be possible to recreate for yourself the energy that was there in the present. You can still maintain the spirit of Beuys’s 7000 Oaks, for example, but rather than reflecting on the documentation and visiting it as a site of tourism you could say: Beuys resurrects himself and decides to replant the Amazon rainforest … So you can use these figures as inspirations for great acts in the present. Maybe it is the anathema to dads: just rewrite the history of all the dads! It’s a perfect solution.
SCRIMGEOUR: And then we’d all become dads? (Laughs)
VICKERS: I mean it could work out! Things could get really messy at the point at which the validation structures no longer hold. If the institutions and museums become a repository for everything that has happened in history but are not allowed to tell you what it means, then individuals can take from it and design things meant for the purpose of that moment …
SCRIMGEOUR: But isn’t that, in a sense, already available, at least as a way of understanding their current role?
VICKERS: Yeah … and, if there is any grain of value left in this post-Internet thing, it does still allow you to think about things in that way. It does remix culture at the network experience level, and maybe in this respect it still has that card to play, but what does it mean if you’re not also focused on a power shift towards total decentralisation? I could say a really horrible truism. It’s like Bitcoin, or legacy currencies like the pound and dollar: things only retain value for the time people believe they have value. Radical refusal still works. Everyone forgot that it works.
BEN VICKERS is Curator of Digital at Serpentine Gallery and co-runs the London project space LimaZulu. He is an active member of the open think tank EdgeRyders, and is currently participating in the prototype of the “place-based social innovation project” unMonastery in Matera, South Italy. He lives in London.
ALEXANDER SCRIMGEOUR is writer, curator, and Spike editor. He lives in Berlin.